But if GT is unrivalled when it comes to driving feel, the same can't be said when it comes to the business of thrilling, fiercely competitive racing. We should be grateful that Polyphony has finally plumbed in an AI system that actually matches the dictionary definition of intelligence. The computer-controlled racers now overtake, make mistakes, attempt to block you and even take the odd risk - just as they should. However, it all still feels a little half hearted. Play PGR4 or Forza 2 and you know that the other guys want to win. Play GT5 Prologue, and they still seem to be playing it safe. We want attitude, we want aggression, and GT5 Prologue still feels like the reins have been left on. Combine this with Polyphony's increasingly out-of-step avoidance of car damage - Kazanori Yamauchi can blame the manufacturers all he wants, but every other major racing game is doing it - and for all that GT5 Prologue is ahead of the competition when it comes to driving, it's still behind the best when it comes to putting on a decent race.
Luckily this flaw has an easy cure: just get your racing kicks against other human beings online. OK, so the features are relatively basic by today's standards and GT5 Prologue misses out on such fundamental things as a built-in friends list or proper integration of online and offline leaderboards. I'm also not sure that the ability to watch old Top Gear footage from inside the game is much of a draw. What's more, the actual business of finding a game is a bit convoluted. First you have to pick an event from the current list - first ensuring you have an appropriate car in your garage - then select the start option, then wait for a reasonably long time while the game matches you up with some opponents. You're also stuck with the preset events, which means you can't simply select a course and a car class and get on with it as some players would doubtless like. On the plus side, Sony will be continually updating the events list as time goes on - and I'm sure we can expect additional download content too.
However, the actual action is generally very good. Where PGR4 and Forza 2 are stuck at eight players, GT5 Prologue can manage up to 16, and with that many racers on the track there's a lot of jostling on the corners and testosterone on the tarmac. The game is smart enough to penalise corner cutting, and the only slight oddity is that it also watches for strange behaviour and switches off collision detection if it suspects that this is due to network error. This will doubtless save some annoyance in online games, but it also means that you're never 100 per cent sure whether you'll hit the car in front as you take a bend too fast or simply glide straight through it. It's peculiar, but it's something you will get used to.
Actually rating GT5 Prologue is a tricky one. It's only about a half of what we expect from a full price game in terms of content, but then it's only about a third of a full-price game in price. Judged by the single-player mode only I'm not sure I'd be keen to recommend it, but throw in the online action and there's easily enough here to keep you coming back until GT5 itself arrives.
The deeper question remains whether GT5 Prologue raises expectations for GT5 itself. Well, the visuals, the enhanced physics model and the improved AI definitely point in a positive direction, but I'm still left with the feeling that there's plenty of room for the series to raise its game. We don't just want the ultimate car toy set - we want the ultimate driving game. GT5 Prologue says that this could be possible, but there's plenty of work to do first.
GT5 Prologue shows the series striding forward in all the right directions, with superb visuals, excellent vehicle physics and a decent online mode. Only two grumbles: damage modelling remains missing, while the AI still isn't quite competitive enough.